Last season's euphoria of qualifying for the UEFA Champions League for the first time in their history has dried up.
It has all gone wrong this season for Die Eisernen, six months after their outstanding achievement. But why?
An Unlikely Rise
The football club from East Berlin have enjoyed a meteoric rise over the last five years, from gaining promotion to the Bundesliga for the first time in 2019 to European qualification in 2021, all the way to a fourth-placed finish and the Champions League in 2023.
Their achievements have defied all expectations, and the fans, who twice saved the club from extinction in the early 2000s, experienced footballing heights they never dreamed possible.
Union Berlin completely disregarded the Bundesliga script in the 2022/23 season and, in doing so, secured a place at the top table of European football. Thanks to manager Urs Fischer’s tactical nous, they remained undefeated at home all season, claiming a 1-1 draw with Champions Bayern Munich and wins over Borussia Dortmund and RB Leipzig.
Their performances and results earned them a prolonged period at the top end of the Bundesliga, leading it on several occasions and were defying the statistics by doing so.
Union boasted 51 goals throughout the season from an xG of 35.07. A significant overperformance and the lowest in the league.
Fischer’s style of football called for a low defensive block, administered to devastating effect, conceding only 38 goals, joint lowest with champions Bayern Munich.
The results came from an unshakable persistence, gaining the most points from losing positions during the season and scoring the most goals in the final 15 minutes.
The summer recruitment looked spectacular on paper. Some big names were touted as potential arrivals in Köpenick, giving fans real excitement ahead of the new season. That feeling was elevated by the end of the window as the club announced several significant signings.
Robin Gosens arrived from Inter Milan, fresh from a Champions League final; loanees David Datro Fofana and Brenden Aaronson joined from Premier League clubs Chelsea and Leeds United; former Germany international Kevin Volland arrived to bolster the attack; and, most surreal of all, legendary Juventus and Italy captain Leonardo Bonucci moved to Berlin, signifying the European status of the club.
Union's best business came in keeping hold of the previous season's top scorer, Sheraldo Becker. The Suriname international had been highly tipped for a move away but opted to stay to represent Die Eisernen in Europe's top competition.
Union’s season began with similar success to the previous, with two 4-1 wins from two games. Striker Kevin Behrens looked to have put the Bundesliga on notice, scoring a hattrick in the opener against 1. FSV Mainz 05.
However, after the chaotic 4-1 win over SV Darmstadt, the results and the goals quickly dried up.
RB Leipzig became the first away team to win a Bundesliga game at the Stadion An der Alten Försterei in 18 months and only the fourth in three and a half years, winning 3-0 in September. Defeats to VfL Wolfsburg, TSG 1899 Hoffenheim, and 1. FC Heidenheim followed, with Hoffenheim also claiming a win in Köpenick. As the losses piled up, Union's confidence evaporated.
In Europe, were Union Berlin’s Champions League performances providing some respite? No.
Their second game provided even more heartache. Sheraldo Becker added further weight to his Union folklore as he grabbed a brace to put his side 2-0 up against SC Braga. But, a second-half collapse allowed the visitors back into the game, and another stoppage-time strike gave their opponents all three points.
A third defeat came from the hands of Napoli, who earned a 1-0 win in Berlin in a game that Union dominated.
Bundesliga Free Fall
Conceding late goals knocked out any spirit left in the team and the defeats continued.
A run of zero goals in five games in all competitions followed, which included an exit from the DFB Pokal, and despite the will and support of the ever-faithful fans, Union looked stuck in a funk.
Many predicted that the statistics would eventually catch up with Die Eisernen, but perhaps no one foresaw this catastrophic collapse.
Union continued to go behind in games, but the repeated fightback of last season just hasn’t come. xG remains low and this season, the lack of goals scored reflect that.
The new signings have found life in the Bundesliga tough.
Aaronson earned a red card in his second appearance and has struggled with the league’s physicality; Fofana has yet to provide a goal or assist in the Bundesliga (he has scored in the Champions League); Volland has earned more red cards than he has scored goals (1 to 0); and Bonucci hasn’t improved last season’s rock-solid defence.
Despite last week’s historic first Champions League point earned in a 1-1 draw with Napoli, the unstoppable force of Xabi Alonso’s Leverkusen immediately extinguished any renewed hope. The 4-0 defeat became the final straw for Union and Fischer’s relationship, both deciding a new face might ignite a return to form.
"This is a very sad moment not only for me personally, but certainly for the entire Union family," said Union president Dirk Zingler.
"It hurts that we have not managed to break the negative run of recent weeks. I am grateful and proud when looking back on the time we have spent and the successes we have celebrated together.
"As painful as this separation is, Urs Fischer is leaving as a friend who will always be welcomed by us with open arms."
A sombre cloud hangs over the Alte Försterei this week, as many thought Fischer would remain for several years. But with clubs around them threatening to pull away in the Bundesliga, Union may have hit reset at the perfect time.